Tuesday, 18 May 2021
Airdate: September 1971 - April 1972
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD 24 Episodes
Warning: Some last episode spoilers.
Nichols was a one season TV series featuring James Garner as, arguably, the titular character (give me a sec, I’ll get back to that soon). It’s said the show struggled because it wasn’t just some kind of a rehash of his old Maverick character (which, admittedly, was amazing, I review various TV iterations of it here) with some new paint slapped on. Apparently the ratings were bad although, from what I can make out, a lot of people including Garner himself loved the show and, honestly, once it was cancelled, none of the programmes shown on the same channel from the following year did as well as Nichols so, yeah, they should have renewed it, I think.
The series remains a footnote in the annals of television history but it certainly shouldn’t be and perhaps that’s why there’s even a DVD edition of it. The show was certainly an unusual one and a cut above a lot of stuff that was airing at the time (and most stuff airing these days, to be fair).
Nichols is set in that transitionary period in the early 1900s when the Old West was just starting to get modernised and it was half in/half out of the barbaric and violent times of confrontation which delineated the two periods, to a certain extent. So it’s set in a small town where everyone carries their six shooter and goes to the local saloon for a drink but, at the same time, one of the main characters has a car and there are even airplanes featured in two episodes. Garner himself is more often than not on an early Harley Davison motor cycle rather than a traditional horse.
It starred James Garner as Nichols, who was a long serving soldier in the cavalry but who didn’t really like guns all that much and preferred to shy away from them due to the old truth that they tend to place you in more danger if you are carrying one. He was a good soldier but, at the start of the first episode, he sees a demonstration of a new type of Gatling gun which does untold damage to whatever it’s aimed at and, that’s enough for Nichols, he quits being a soldier and finally returns to his home town of... Nichols.
Yeah, okay, so the title of the show could be the character name and could be the name of the town, which is named after Nichol’s family who started the community many years before. However, when he gets back home, he finds his parents dead and his land grabbed. He no longer has ‘legal’ entitlement to his former home and property but, during the course of the first episode, the town’s matriarch Ma Ketcham, played superbly by Neva Patterson, cons Nichols into taking the sheriff’s job for the town. Patterson is one of a few, highly talented cast members who had regular recurring roles on the show.
The pick of the bunch for my money would be a pre-Superman Margot Kidder as the astonishingly beautiful Ruth, Nichol’s sometimes girlfriend and confidant. She actually does an amazing job in this and it’s the most sympathetic character I’ve seen her play. Then we have future The Rockford Files and Bret Maverick co-star Stuart Margolin as the slobby, cowardly deputy Mitch. Margolin would be alongside Garner often in the course of his television career and also went on to become a very good TV director with many Emmy award nominations to his name. And then there’s the local bully and half-villain, half ally character of Ketch, Ma Ketcham’s disappointing son, played by John Beck. Beck is a very under appreciated actor in my book, who readers might best know from his roles as Moonpie in Rollerball (reviewed here) and as one of the rebels in Woody Allen’s Sleeper. Beck would also star in two episodes as pilot Orv, who looks no different from Ketch and the only eyebrows raised is when people say he looks like someone back in the town of Nichols. Go figure.
And yeah, it was a really unusual programme, mostly because it’s really well written and the plots don’t go anywhere near where you think they are going at the start of an episode. For the most part these are not the formulaic plots you would know from their appearances in various guises on other shows and quite often the obvious conclusion to the story comes half way through... and then it goes off on another tangent. There’s even, for instance, a story where the majority of it depict how Nichols and a young man are trying to figure out how to get a horse out of a basement they’ve been trapped in after an earthquake in a neighbouring town, without getting shot up by the local ruffians.
The pacing is gentle, a little like Maverick... but no less intriguing and it’s probably the most entertaining show that got aired that year. And it’s a shock somewhat when, presumably due to the pending cancellation, the writers decided to retool the show and make it into something that could be perceived as a more traditional show worth renewing. So something happens in the last episode that changes things slightly but at the same time, serves as a nice ending to the show if it didn’t get picked up again (which it obviously didn’t).
A shock because, in the last episode, before the pre-credits sequence is even done, Nichols is shot dead by a hoodlum in cold blood. After the credits of a smiling James Garner, we are at the wake in the local saloon and in walks... Nichols. Except it’s Nichol’s previously unheard of older brother, played also by James Garner and looking exactly the same apart from a big black moustache. He spends the last episode ensuring his brother’s killers are brought to justice and he’s offered the job of sheriff by Ma Ketcham at the end. He declines but says he might be back (so he could take over if a second series was requested) but... as it is he rides out of town at the end on his brother’s motorbike, passing a street sign reading ‘You are now leaving Nichols.’ It’s a lovely ending but it sure is a shame that the character I grew to love over the previous 23 episodes was buried in a hole in the ground before the opening credits were even rolling. However, it does give the show a sense of closure and that’s admittedly a lot more than most shows get.
Nichols is well worth a watch if you’re an admirer of the great James Garner and the ensemble cast do an amazing job, rising to the high quality of the writing and lifting it somewhat above the average TV fodder of the time. This might possibly rank somewhere in my top twenty best TV shows and it’s certainly something some of you might want to check out, I think.